How to Give a Presentation That Is Not Sh#@ty

Written by Brandi Wren | @SassAndScience


I remember very vividly the first time I gave a presentation on my research at a conference. I was in the first semester of my PhD program, and was presenting findings from my Masters research. I was scheduled to present right between two prominent primatologists and, to make matters more nerve-racking, the audience, although relatively small, consisted of a number of accomplished primatologists and biological anthropologists. As each presenter gave their talk before me, my anxiety grew. Finally, when it was almost my turn, I was filled with terror and I truly thought my heart might pound right out of my chest. The lights in the room seemed too bright to bear, colors were so intense to be overwhelming, and I thought that there was surely no way that I could actually go through with it without fainting.

But I did go through with it. And I didn’t faint. And while it wasn’t the best presentation ever, I received many compliments on it. More importantly, though, I had broken the seal and had my first presentation from which I could learn how to improve. I was even able to improve that presentation enough to receive the Best Student Paper Award a month later at my state’s Academy of Science meetings. So, while that first presentation induced nothing but terror, it was absolutely essential in getting me over that first hurdle of just doing it.

That isn’t to say that I couldn’t have used more advice or tips, or that I couldn’t still improve my presentations. My advisor gave me advice and encouragement, however I was so distracted by my own anxiety that they probably did not sink in. Or maybe they did and that’s how I got through the talk without too many stumbles. Either way, we can all use some advice when we’re developing our “research presentation legs.” So, I’m here to help. While this list isn’t comprehensive, and input from those who specialize in your area of research is invaluable, my goal here is to provide undergraduates and early graduate students with a list of important tips for giving research presentations.

  • Don’t waste your (and our) time on a literature review. Most conference presentations are scheduled for 12-20 minutes including questions. This means that you only have a limited amount of time to share your research, and that’s what we’re all there to learn about. Most of the people attending your talk already have a background in the topic, so you can get by with just a very basic background. Anything more than the basics will bore some, offend others, and eat into the time you have to present your own research. We want to hear about what your research question is, how you designed your study to answer that question, what your results were, and what yourresults might mean. We don’t want to hear a summary of all the research that has been done on the topic prior to your study. This is your time to show and tell.
  • Easier said than done, but do whatever you can to help yourself relax. One very common mistake that people make is drinking copious amounts of coffee before a presentation. Do. Not. Do. This. Taking in large amounts of caffeine will only increase your anxiety. I personally recommend meditation before giving a presentation. And the sooner you start doing it, the better. Exercising can also help you relax, so start your morning early with a jog or trip to the gym – or combine meditation and exercise and start your day with yoga. Do whatever you need to do whenever you can to relax in the time leading up to your talk – read, cuddle with somebody, or hang out with friends. Also, relax because (almost) everybody in that room wants you to do well. There is little that is more painful at a conference than watching a bad talk (and one of those things is giving a bad talk). Only the most mean-spirited person really wants to watch you fail, and those people deserve to be ignored anyway. Further, many of the people in your audience are also feeling anxious about their own talks, so it’s easy for them to sympathize with you. One technique I like to use to help myself relax during a talk is to start with a joke. Don’t stress over this – I’ve found that it generally doesn’t take the world’s funniest joke to make an audience laugh at a conference or other academically oriented gathering. (It’s not that academics don’t have great senses of humor – on the contrary, in fact – but probably that conferences and such are so focused on being serious and rigidly structured that even mildly funny jokes can be a relief to everybody.)
  • Prepare early. This is one major way to reduce anxiety before giving a talk. You will always hear stories about the people who put together their presentations on their way to their conference or finished their presentation the morning of their talk. I’ve done it myself. Sometimes you can get away with it, but it almost never goes well when you’re new to giving talks. Having to rush at the last minute to finish your talk has a domino effect on your stress levels. If you are working up to the last minute to finish your presentation, then you don’t have to miss sleep in the days preceding your talk (which generally reduces your performance level), you have time to purposefully relax in the days leading up to your talk, and you don’t feel the need to gulp down ridiculous amounts of coffee the morning of your presentation.
  • Avoid using large, complex, and/or highly detailed tables or graphs. I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed somebody say, “As you can see on this table/graph” while pointing to some table with 30 rows and 15 columns or some graph with countless variables plotted on it – something worthy of Sherlock Holmes’ attention to detail. No, we can’t see what you’re referring to. First, we don’t have time to process the information that is in your highly detailed table or graph in the amount of time that you have it on the screen. Second, we often PHYSICALLY CAN’T SEE IT. If you include tables, graphs, and charts in your presentation – which I highly encourage you go do – they should be easy to read from the back of the room, organized in a manner that is easily visually processed, and should only include the information that you are talking about in your talk. Remember that you will likely only have time to have that table or graph up for a minute if that. The audience needs to be able to look at it and quickly understand what it is that you want to communicate.
  • Leave time for questions, and be prepared for questions. Leaving time for questions (admittedly my weak point) generally shows that you know how to manage your time well. It also gives you a chance to interact with your audience and acts as an icebreaker to talk to talk to these people later (if you’re interested, of course). Questions can provide you with very useful feedback for improving your research as well. Brainstorm ahead of time about what kinds of questions you might get so that you can prepare answers. Talk to your advisor and fellow students to get ideas for potential questions.
  • Find a guinea pig. Find a friend, colleague, advisor, etc. who is willing to listen to your talk ahead of time and give feedback. They can provide you with potential questions that audience members might ask, tell you when your verbiage is unclear, point out poorly formatted images like overly detailed tables, and give general suggestions on your presentation. If you really want to go all out, practice it in a large room that is similar to the room where you will give your actual presentation, and have them sit in the back. Can they hear you from the back? (Maybe not important if you will have a microphone at the actual talk.) Can they read your slides from the back (including the tables and graphs)? Do they understand your explanations?
  • Bring copies of your presentation in multiple formats and test your presentations on other operating systems beforehand. This is especially important if you are a Mac user and will be giving your talk on a Windows computer. It is also important if you are using an older version of Windows, however, or an older version of PowerPoint. Test the presentation for changes in font size, image placement, and whether any embedded videos or audio play correctly. Save your presentation in multiple formats so that you have backups in case one format appears wonky.
  • The. @#$%. Down. Do not try to cram in more information than what is necessary by talking fast. It implies that you can’t edit yourself down to bite size chunks. And bite size chunks are really what conference talks are all about. (Remember those 12-20 minute time limits?)
  • For Darwin’s sake, DO NOT GO OVER YOUR ALLOTTED TIME. Please. Nothing makes a great number of conference participants “stabbier” than presenters going over their time. It reveals not only poor time management, but complete disrespect for everybody else in the room (especially the presenters after you). Watch your time. There will generally be somebody flashing time cards at you, so you will have warning that you are getting close to your time. If you know you’re cutting it close, jump ahead because the most important thing to cover are your results.

These tips aren’t guaranteed to produce a stellar talk, but if you follow them you are much less likely to give a sh#%ty talk. And, hey, that’s a start, right?

Brandi Wren is the Founder and Program Director of Sepela Field Programs, as well as the Instructor for the Field Primatology course. She has been teaching field courses in South Africa since 2007. She holds a PhD from Purdue University in Anthropology and has been studying primates for over a decade. She currently lives in Florida where she enjoys hiking with her dog, reading, and learning how to lounge from her cats.

Brandi Wren is the Founder and Program Director of Sepela Field Programs, as well as the Instructor for the Field Primatology course. She has been teaching field courses in South Africa since 2007. She holds a PhD from Purdue University in Anthropology and has been studying primates for over a decade. She currently lives in Florida where she enjoys hiking with her dog, reading, and learning how to lounge from her cats.